Sunday, May 17, 2009

Super Google!

I remember when AOL's WebCrawler and AltaVista were the best of the best for searching the 'net. Then came Google, and the on-line world was never the same. Google today has a huge web-footprint, if you will, dominating the search engine business, and most every other area of the net it touches via ad-driven accessories. Why, this very blog is hosted by Google!

Google can find everything, it seems, but the one thing it cannot do is answer a question. That seems like a daunting task, but there is a new approach with a fine pedigree.

From the Times Online:

A revolutionary new search engine that computes answers rather than pointing to websites will be launched officially today amid heated talk that it could challenge the might of Google.

Wolfram Alpha, named after Stephen Wolfram, the British-born computer scientist and inventor behind the project, takes a query and uses computational power to crunch through huge databases.

The service can compute the distance between two cities, the population of a country at a specific date and the position of the Space Shuttle at a given moment. The user does not have to search through links provided by the engine; the answer comes immediately and, if appropriate, is accompanied by charts or graphs. What it does that Google, at the moment, cannot do is provide answers to questions that have not been answered already.

Wolframs stated goals are anything but modest:

WolframAlpha's long-term goal is to make all systematic knowledge immediately computable and accessible to everyone. We aim to collect and curate all objective data; implement every known model, method, and algorithm; and make it possible to compute whatever can be computed about anything. Our goal is to build on the achievements of science and other systematizations of knowledge to provide a single source that can be relied on by everyone for definitive answers to factual queries.

WolframAlpha aims to bring expert-level knowledge and capabilities to the broadest possible range of people—spanning all professions and education levels. Our goal is to accept completely free-form input, and to serve as a knowledge engine that generates powerful results and presents them with maximum clarity.

WolframAlpha is an ambitious, long-term intellectual endeavor that we intend will deliver increasing capabilities over the years and decades to come. With a world-class team and participation from top outside experts in countless fields, our goal is to create something that will stand as a major milestone of 21st century intellectual achievement.

Uh, yeah. ALL SYSTEMATIC KNOWLEDGE??!! This is bloody amazing, and over-the-top ambitious. I think it's going to take a little while to get there. Still, this thing is pretty powerful already.

Try "Pi to 1000 digits" and you get

I checked, and it's the right answer. I put in my last name and found

Basic information for the United States:

Rank: 857th

Fraction: 1 in 7326 people 0.014%

Number: 36,833 people

Ethnic fractions:

White 96.54%
Mixed 1.26%
Mestizo 1.22%
Black 0.46%
Asian 0.4%
Amerindian 0.11%

But when I tried to search for Doctor Dalai, I get "WolframAlpha isn't sure what to do with your input." Which is probably appropriate.

This is one of those "works in progress" that is pretty impressive from the beginning. It isn't Google as yet, but sooner or later, WolframAlpha will surpass it's rival. In the meantime, it's a pretty darn good math homework helper. Give it a try at Happy computing!

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